“The heart doesn’t get old”
Dino Risi’s 1955 comedy film Scandal in Sorrento (Italian: Pane, amore e …, which literally translates to “Bread, love and …”) is set in the picturesque Bay of Naples. The story follows Comandante Antonio’s (Vittorio De Sica) return to Sorrento and his ensuing quest to reclaim his home from Sofia (Sophia Loren), a seductive fishmonger.
Unwilling to move, Sofia uses her charms and wit to persuade the ladies’ man to convince his brother, the local priest Don Matteo (Mario Carotenuto), to extend her tenancy. But as Antonio’s interest in her grows, so does her beloved’s jealousy. Nicolino (Antonio Cifariello), though poor and with no social standing, can’t stand the thought of benefiting from Sofia’s connection to the Comandante. His moral compass might prove to be the best remedy for their predicament.
Right off the bat, Scandal in Sorrento gains the air of a theatrical play, with its far-off gazes and sonorous exclamations. The over the top performances are characteristic of the times, of course, but gain a droll quality when seen through fresh eyes. What is first perceived, then, as unintended humor quickly spins into a yarnball of tightly-wound hilarity. Antionio’s old nurse, Caramella (Tina Pica), is a prime example of the pantomime that lurks beneath innocence, shuffling her feet around and producing such scraps of wisdom as: “if you cry, your face gets wet and nothing else changes”.
The dynamic between the characters is often indulgent and playful, making the film reflect the breeziness of its coastal setting. Scandal in Sorrento‘s dialogue thrives on this, gaining enough momentum to lead Sofia to extricate Nicolino as a prospetive threat from Antionio’s mind by producing this hogwash:
Antonio, of course, is left with a bubbling brain when trying to make sense of it, so he accepts the explanation jovially. The entire film overflows with pieces of dialogue and ad hoc elements that, objectively speaking, shouldn’t be nearly as riotous as they seem. These include a date interrupted by frollicking priests, a language barrier that leaves two characters speaking nonsensically to each other but somehow doesn’t impede their growing familiarity, and the priest crying out:
The role of propriety in people’s lives is also more pronounced, creating the main source of tension for Sofia. On more than one occasion she refers to the detrimental effects of gossip, and points out how indecent Antionio’s offer of cohabitation sounds. His lighthearted approach to such matters feeds off the contrast between his pomposity and small town groundedness. Scandal in Sorrento, again, finds a way to alleviate any gravity with scenes that include Antonio’s first day at work and an impromptu mambo performed in front of his employers.
Sofia’s obvious sex appeal, only heightened by Sophia Loren’s performance, sets off more chaos on-screen. Then again, melodrama was a favorite mood and a popular genre in the 1950s. As Marga Cottino-Jones notices in her book Women, Desire, and Power in Italian Cinema (2010), the combination of physical beauty and sex appeal created a new “woman-as-spectacle trend”, presented in a humorist key.
The “diva” shifts around as an object with the power to elicit reactions from men falling prey to the Casanova complex. But as we see in Scandal in Sorrento, the objectification of Sophia’s character limits her identity solely to her relationship with a man, no matter how independent and cunning she is made to seem. Still, by alluding to a beautiful female protagonist’s ability to control the men around her with her sex appeal, as Cottino-Jones points out, these Italian films of the 1950s worked as “deflators of the patriarchal order”.
This would certainly explain why Antonio fumbles to save face on numerous occasions. Around that time, the men of these comic films were deprived of their commanding role as “movers and controllers of the film’s action.” Still, Scandal in Sorrento paints Camandante Antonio as the ultimate hero, albeit after some much-needed maturing on his part. It’s his index finger that guides the way through foggy miscommunication and wounded pride.
The film’s obvious manipulation of the human sex drive, as well as a rather stuffy look at gender, is as fascinating today as it is somewhat unpleasant. But why? Sofia’s beauty is shown to be a poor shield against the world, just as Antonio’s social standing doesn’t ensure that he will always have his way.
But somehow, Sofia’s behavior is judged as debased by both the other characters, and possibly by viewers. That may come down to our psychology. In 1972, Janet Taylor Spence and Robert Helmreich came up with the first variation of the Attitudes Toward Women Scale (AWS). When testing it, the results showed that both sexes “rated highest the woman who was competent in stereotypically masculine ways”. Perhaps that’s why Sofia’s use of sexuality, her cleaving to her femininity as a means of persuasion, is judged so severely.
Overall, despite its thrilling humor, Scandal in Sorrento lacks depth. Its main crime is the surprising lack of emotional ties between the central characters, dissolving the importance of the plot in a matter of seconds. If there’s nothing at stake, there can be no impact. But maybe this very inconsequence is meant to instil in us the film’s infectious gaiety.